From 1945 to 1965, Don and Mimi Galvin had 12 children, 10 boys and 2 girls. And 6 of the boys were diagnosed with schizophrenia, making the family a subject of interest to the scientific community and making life within the family a sometimes harrowing and always complicated experience.
Robert Kolker, author of the very good true crime book Lost Girls, tells the story of the family in Hidden Valley Road, named after the Colorado Springs street where the family resided. One of the things I liked about Lost Girls was how he focused on the victims, treating them as the actual complicated women that they were. And he does much the same here.
The family and the illness they had to manage are complicated, and it would be tempting, I think, for a writer to try to tease out to what degree certain choices the parents made might have exacerbated or even sparked the illness of the six sons. But Kolker does not do that. He discusses the evolving science of schizophrenia — including to what degree it is likely to be genetic vs. environmental and how the understanding of that interaction has evolved over time. By the end of the book, it is clear that genetics play a role, and studies involving the Galvins have contributed to that understanding. But there’s still a lot that is unclear about the best way to treat the illness or even prevent it from taking hold.
As with Lost Girls, what Kolker seems most interested in is the human experience. And it is a difficult experience. There are instances of physical, emotional, and sexual violence and abuse. There are also numerous bad choices on the part of parents and siblings, although it’s not always clear what a good choice would look like in these circumstances. The parents were constantly having to balance the needs to their sick children and their well children, and there were no good supports or clear answers. Some of the children, especially the two youngest daughters, have strong criticisms of how their parents managed the situation, but Kolker lets the children be the ones to criticize. He simply shares their story.
But why tell this story? That’s something that I often wonder when I read nonfiction, particularly nonfiction about regular people who weren’t seeking the spotlight. Kolker got permission from all of the living family members to tell this story, and they were interviewed extensively and gave him access to diaries and records. So this is a story they were willing to have told. And I think because Kolker takes this humanistic approach, it’s good that he told it. The family’s participation does not mean he pretties up the narrative. He tells of some horrible experiences that some might want to keep secret. But he also shows how a mental illness like schizophrenia causes a person to lose a grip on reality, which can lead to actions that make no sense from the outside.
There are limits to what he can reveal, of course. It’s interesting to me that the book is subtitled “Inside the Mind of an American Family.” The book doesn’t really take readers inside the mind of a schizophrenic person, although we get some glimpses of those brothers’ thought process. What we really see is how the various minds within this one family operate together. We see how one person’s sickness creates conditions that are harmful to another, perhaps leading to further illness or simply making a good relationship impossible. He shows how the same mental illness can manifest differently in different people and how those who are “well” all have to find their own individual paths to health. And each person’s choice in the family has the potential to affect the others as the family mind continues to evolve.